Why Did the Boeing 737 MAX Crash?

software, human error share blame in fatal airline disasters

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Starting in late 2018, two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes crashed, killing 346 people total. The crashes occurred just months apart and the 737 MAX was grounded as a result. Why did both airliners crash?

Airplane crashing to the ground from the sky
Two Boeing 737 MAX airliner crashes were the result of human error and sensor failures of the newly implemented Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Photo by Arsel Ozgurdal / Shutterstock

In October 2018, a commercial flight, Lion Air Flight 610, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Less than five months later, on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in central Ethiopia, killing all 157 people onboard. Both flights were Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. The model of airliner was grounded from March 2019 to December 2020 pending investigation and new system, training, and maintenance requirements.

The 737 MAX was in the news recently as Congress extended a deadline that would impose a new safety standard on the MAX aircraft, following successful lobbying by Boeing.

What do we know about these tragic events four years later? In his video series Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach, Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, revisits the Lion Air incident for answers.

What Happened to Lion Air Flight 610?

“At 6:20 a.m. on October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 lifted off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, for a routine 300-mile flight across the Java Sea to Pangkalpinang,” Dr. Ressler said. “About two minutes into the flight, as the jet was approaching an altitude of 2,000 feet, the first officer contacted Jakarta air traffic control and requested a holding point, where the aircraft could loiter while the pilots addressed an unspecified ‘flight-control problem.'”

Air traffic control approved the hold at 5,000 feet. Suddenly the plane entered a violent 700-foot dive, recovered, and resumed its ascent. It leveled off at 5,000 feet before beginning a series of erratic altitude changes. The first officer requested a return to the Jakarta airport, which was granted, but the plane never made it. The aircraft never turned back, and after several confused radio transmissions from the captain, the plane was spotted hitting the sea at a near-vertical dive. Everyone on board died instantly.

When Did the Boeing 737 MAX Get Grounded?

“Three days later, divers recovered the flight data recorder, and within a week, the crash was tentatively attributed to a sensor failure and a flaw in the airplane’s flight-control system,” Dr. Ressler said. “Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration then issued worldwide advisories describing a simple procedure that pilots should use if a similar sensor failure occurred—and the 737 MAX was allowed to continue flying.”

Less than five months later, on March 10, 2019, a tragic history repeated itself. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa and began flying erratically. It hit the ground at 600 miles per hour, killing all 157 people on board. In less than a week, the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes was grounded.

Boeing had implemented a flight-stabilizing feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, into some of its planes. This system was involved in both crashes. In light of the crashes, several conclusions were drawn. One of which was that Boeing had claimed that pilots had no need to familiarize themselves with the MCAS system, which was clearly incorrect. Boeing fixed its MCAS system quickly after these tragedies and some critics now allege that the 737 MAX aircraft are now some of the safest in the sky.

Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily